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FAQ: Is a Russia-U.S. prisoner swap possible?

MOSCOW — For the year and a half that former Marine Paul Whelan was held in a Russian prison on espionage charges, there was speculation that securing his release would ultimately involve a prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.

On Tuesday, Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said his client will not appeal the 16-year prison sentence announced June 15.

“He hopes for being exchanged for the Russians convicted in the United States in the near future,” Zherebenkov told the Interfax news agency. The deadline to appeal is Thursday.

Whelan, 50, has maintained throughout his detention that he was framed.

Russian authorities say no prisoner swaps are planned. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, said last week that “what we’re looking for is not an exchange. We’re looking for justice for Paul Whelan.”

Zherebenkov identified two Russians currently in U.S. prisons whom the Kremlin would want in a trade for Whelan: Konstantin Yaroshenko and Viktor Bout.

Who is Konstantin Yaroshenko?

Yaroshenko, a 51-year-old pilot, is serving a 20-year prison sentence at the Danbury, Conn., federal prison for conspiracy to bring drugs into the United States. In 2010, Yaroshenko met with two men about transporting large shipments of cocaine from South America into Liberia and then on to other destinations, including the United States, according to court documents.

What Yaroshenko didn’t know was that the two men he was meeting were confidential sources for a long-running undercover Drug Enforcement Administration operation. He traveled to the Liberian capital of Monrovia in May 2010 and met with Chigbo Umeh, a notorious Nigerian drug smuggler, and agreed to arrange for the transport of more than four tons of cocaine from Venezuela to Liberia for $4.5 million and an additional $1.2 million to transport some of the drugs on to Ghana, according to prosecutors.

But the DEA had long been onto Umeh. Liberian government officials Umeh had bribed to ensure local law enforcement officials looked the other way were also working with the DEA.

Yaroshenko was picked up by Liberian authorities and turned over to DEA officials, who put him on a plane to the United States. His attorneys argued he had been entrapped by the DEA.

“Effectively, we’re talking about a kidnapping of a Russian citizen from a third country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in July 2010, shortly after Yaroshenko’s arrest.

Who is Viktor Bout?

The 53-year-old Bout was also arrested through a DEA sting, but his case garnered considerably more attention than Yaroshenko’s. Bout, a gunrunner, was the inspiration behind Nicholas Cage’s character in the 2005 film “Lord of War.”

Bout’s exploits earned him the nickname “Merchant of Death” for the conflicts he helped fuel. In Afghanistan, he equipped opposite sides: the Taliban and ­Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance.

Bout was on the radar of Western intelligence agencies for years but avoided arrest until he was lured out of hiding in 2008. A paid informer of the DEA set up a fictitious deal through a known associate of Bout’s to supply 100 surface-to-air missiles and rocket launchers to the FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group.

Bout’s aircrew was supposed to drop the weapons by parachute at designated landing spots in Colombia. The charade convinced Bout he was dealing with senior FARC leaders. When a member of the sting team invited him to Thailand, Bout agreed. He was picked up in Bangkok by Thai police but wasn’t extradited to the United States for more than two years.

A DEA agent, an undercover sting and ‘The Merchant of Death’

Russia protested the Thai court decision that allowed his extradition, denouncing it as politically motivated.

Bout is serving a 25-year prison sentence at the federal prison in Marion, Ill. 

Are other Americans being held in Russia?

Trevor Reed, 28, a former Marine, is nearing one year in detainment and awaits trial. While visiting his Russian girlfriend last summer, Reed attended a party for her colleagues on Aug. 15 at which he was encouraged to drink a large amount of vodka, according to a statement posted by Reed’s family on a website about his case.

The family statement said Reed has no recollection of what happened next. He and his girlfriend apparently got a ride home with some other people from the party, and when he got nauseated and asked to exit the vehicle, he started running around near a busy boulevard late at night, the family said.

The police were called, and his girlfriend was instructed to come back to pick him up after a couple of hours, according to the statement.

She learned Reed was being interviewed by members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, “without an attorney or adequate interpreter while he was still under the influence,” the statement said.

He was then accused of grabbing a police officer’s arm and causing the car they were in to swerve, and was charged with “the use of violence dangerous to the life and health against a government official in the performance of their duties,” which carries a sentence of up to 10 years.

The Reed family contends the charges are false. Trevor’s father, Joey Reed, was at the Moscow courthouse Monday for the conclusion of Whelan’s trial.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow declined to comment on Reed’s case.

There is also 52-year-old Michael Calvey, a prominent U.S. investor based in Russia who was detained in February 2019 on suspicion of “fraud carried out by an organized group.” Such a crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, according to the Russian criminal code.

His private equity firm, Baring Vostok Capital Partners, says Russian authorities detained him and three other employees as a result of a shareholder dispute at a bank, Orient Express, in which the firm holds a stake. Calvey is currently under house arrest in Moscow.

How likely is a swap?

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters last week that a possible swap with the United States involving Whelan hasn’t been discussed.

But last summer, Ryabkov suggested the United States should “free Yaroshenko, swap him for an American or Americans who are serving their sentence here,” according to the Interfax news agency. He did not specifically mention Whelan or other Americans in custody.

Speaking after the June 15 verdict, Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador, said he was in no position to discuss prisoner exchanges. Asked if President Trump would personally appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin for Whelan’s release, Sullivan declined to comment. Whelan also has Canadian, Irish and British citizenship.

“I know that others in the Russian government have suggested this idea, but we don’t trade people,” Sullivan added. “We focus on individual justice.”

Whelan’s brother David said the family “would not oppose” a swap.

“But Paul has said he is more [British sitcom character] Mr. Bean than [fictitious British spy] Mr. Bond,” David Whelan wrote in an email. “I do not believe that any government would exchange Mr. Bean for ‘The Merchant of Death.’ ”

Bout’s wife, Alla Bout, told Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti that she’s willing to write a formal request for a trade “if lawyers and diplomats deem it appropriate.”

When was the last U.S.-Russia swap?

The last major prisoner swap between the United States and Russia was a decade ago, when the United States transferred 10 Russian deep-cover agents in suburban America — the case later inspired FX’s hit show “The Americans” — to Russia in return for four alleged double agents.

Michael McFaul, who was a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said in April that swapping someone such as Bout for Whelan would put the United States in “a difficult place.”

“There’s a real asymmetry swapping an innocent American for a real convicted criminal who just happens to have Russian citizenship,” McFaul said.

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